For much-in-demand artist Nathan Sawaya, the Legos he uses to build large-scale sculptures might as well be gold bricks.
Who doesn't remember growing up playing with Legos—the small, colorful bricks that can be combined to create anything from airplanes to zebras? Most kids ultimately pack up their Legos and move on. But Nathan Sawaya never did.
Though he played with Legos like most kids, they were the furthest thing from his mind when he set out in the working world. After graduating with a law degree from New York University in 1998, Sawaya became a Wall Street attorney, earning a comfortable six-figure salary—and working in a high-stress environment. To relax after long hours at the office, he would work on art projects at night, making sculptures using clay at first, then moving into more whimsical media, like candy.
One of Sawaya's first hobbyist projects with Legos was an eight-foot-tall pencil. Friends would come over to gawk at it, and Sawaya eventually set up a website, brickartist.com, to post photos of his creations. Visitors to the site sent in requests, such as Lego renderings of portraits of their children.
The hobby became the real thing in 2004 after he won a competition sponsored by Lego to find the best builder in the U.S. He quit his job and became one of Lego's "master model builders," creating sculptures for its theme park in San Diego. They paid him just $13 an hour, but it gave him good training for when he returned to New York to create his own Lego works full-time.
Sawaya now keeps 1.5 million Lego bricks, meticulously organized by shape and color into clear bins (he buys all his Legos in bulk). He sketches his projects first on something called "brick paper"—essentially, graph paper modified for Lego shapes—and takes anywhere from a few days to a few months to build them. At any given time, he's working on three or four projects, earning anywhere from a couple thousand dollars up to six figures per work, depending on the complexity of the project and how quickly they need to be built.
For his own personal fulfillment, he also creates more avant-garde works and has two traveling exhibitions of his work.
Ironically, Sawaya says he now works more hours per week than he ever did as a corporate lawyer, although he also makes more money than he did then. Most important to him, though, is the artistic gratification he gets out of his Lego creations, particularly when he gets feedback from children who are inspired by his projects. "There are 400 million children out there playing with Legos," he says. "Who am I to say that they aren't artists too?"